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Leader's speech, Plymouth 1907

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Liberal)

Location: Plymouth


Campbell-Bannerman was not in good health at the time of this speech. He was sixty-nine years old when he became Prime Minister, one of the eldest, and had more than one heart attack while in office. On arriving in Plymouth on June 7th, 1907, and in response to a formal welcome from the Devon Liberal Association, the Prime Minister warned them that, as The Times recorded, ‘his state of health was not such as to induce him to come into public life at all. His voice was of a doubtful quality just now, and there might be some risk, but he trusted no evil would come.’ His address, to some 6000 people in the Drill-Hall, indicates a different relationship to party to that found in, say, Balfour who, is said to have remarked that he would sooner consult his valet than the National Union of Conservative Associations. Indeed, Campbell-Bannerman is one of the first to so explicitly acknowledge in a speech the significance of the party conference, notably describing his presence there as so that he might given an account of himself. The speech starts slowly, Campbell-Bannerman trying to show that the Liberal government had been working hard in Parliament and making progress but dwelling perhaps too much on failure over licensing reform, and the defeat of the Irish Council Bill (intended to create an Irish organisation to control the spending of Irish tax proceeds). But before long he is addressing fundamental constitutional issues. The House of Lords had rejected Bills to abolish plural voting (at this time some individuals could vote in both the constituency in which they lived and that in which they had a place of business) and the Education Bill, which sought to address the grievances of the nonconformists. Campbell-Bannerman puts the issue into a larger historical context and makes much of the large majority won at the election (the claim of mandate mocked by Balfour in his conference speech earlier in the year).

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, - I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindly welcome. As Mr. Radford has said, it is not the first time that I have been in Plymouth at a Liberal meeting. I well remember how kindly you received me in those dark days; I thank you for repeating that kindly reception in these brighter times.

The Liberal Party in Excellent Health

Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived today at one of the most interesting and, at the same time, the most critical periods in the year’s history of a political party - the moment, that is, when the leader of the party in the House of Commons meets the leading men of the party as it is organised throughout the country, in order to take counsel together and in order that he may render some account of himself to them. It is a testing moment for the health of a party. Ill fares the party when these two elements, those who conduct the warfare in the House of Commons and those who organise and inspire it in the country, show any discrepancy between them either in intention or in temperature. But when I speak of temperature it makes me think of that to which I have been subject myself within the last two or three days. When the doctor makes a diagnosis of his patient, he considers a rise of temperature to be a sign of disease; we in political life consider it a sign of abounding health. Now, I have already discerned, not only from the reports I have received of the proceedings of the Federation yesterday and today, but also from what I can appreciate myself in this great audience, that there is perfect harmony between us at this moment. I go further: never in my experience has that harmony been so great as it is at this moment. I can honestly say so, looking back over the months passed since the General Election, and this may astonish some of our kindly critics in the Press and on the platform, but it is my honest and undoubted conviction. It has never been greater than now. It has gained rather than lost in intensity. In the House of Commons and in the country alike the zeal of our friends is only equalled by their patience. Long may it continue so, for the moving force of their passion is great, but great also is their reasonableness. Without these two conditions it is not possible to do great political work for the country.

Not a Single Day Wasted in the Commons

You will ask me what report I bring from the House of Commons of the position of business there, and if I were to place any faith - and I do not - in what I read in the newspapers I might stand in some degree of trepidation before you. I see charges of flagrant Parliamentary mismanagement, charges of overloading the ship, but especially of forcing on the House of Commons, even under the lightened programme of business announced last Monday, an intolerable and impossible burden. We are attacked for attempt­ing too much, we are attacked for accomplishing too little, and that little bad. One thing that sustains me amidst it all is the know­ledge that since the debate on the Address was finished, largely owing to the good management of Mr. Whiteley, we have not wasted a single day in the House of Commons. Other people may have wasted time possibly, but we are not responsible for that. If we put more into our Sessional programme than we have been able to carry out, at least you cannot blame us for want of energy. If we have been doing mischief, as our opponents suggest - and they would not be proper opponents if they did not suggest it - at any rate, it is not the kind of mischief which we were told in our child­hood days was found for idle hands to do. We have not idle hands; we have been working overtime and at high pressure.

The Licensing Bill

We have met with two great disappointments, I admit. I wish we could have seen our way to passing a thoroughly good Licensing Bill. That is what I hoped - I, indeed, promised - but it was impossible. I admit we overestimated our powers; but you will, I know, share our disappointment, and let me offer you this consolation, that the Bill which will see the light next year will be a better Bill and a more effectual Bill than we could have submitted this year.

The Irish Council Bill

Again, I wish I could have reported that the claims of Ireland were to receive an instalment of justice, that her crying need for an opportunity to rally her own people in an effort for her better government was about to be satisfied, at least in part. We made a sincere and honest attempt to provide that opportunity, and I regret that the scheme put forward by his Majesty’s Government, which, in their view, would have gone some way in starting Ireland along a new career, and a career of prosperity, was rejected in haste by the Irish people. But, if this be a subject of regret, ladies and gentlemen, do not think for a moment that I complain of their action. We took what steps we could to ascertain Irish feeling, and we had good reason to believe that our Bill would receive a most favourable reception, but the moment we were undeceived of course it was all over. A measure which was pronounced to be out of accord with the wishes and ideas of the Irish people was not a measure which a Liberal Government could proceed with, and therefore, although with regret and reluctance, we had to abandon it. My own views with regard to Ireland, I need hardly tell you, ladies and gentlemen, are wholly unchanged; I am not sure that they have not even been confirmed by what has happened; but if you ask me how the policy of the Liberal party is affected and what they are prepared to offer Ireland in the near future, I can only reply that you must wait and see. There are times when silence and reflection are better than speech, and I am not sure that this is not one of them. We must give the people of Ireland and the people of England time to take in the situation in all its bearings without bitterness and without passion. But, after all, if we have had to endure these two disappointments, we have no reason to be dissatisfied with the progress we have made.

The Budget and Reduction of Expenditure

Mr. Asquith’s Budget is well on its way, and a most notable Budget it is. It will be remembered in the years to come as a Budget which began the process of melting down our cast-iron system of Income-tax by discriminating between earned and unearned incomes, and, even more, it will be remembered as the Bud­get which marked the starting-point of old age pensions. But, ladies and gentlemen, do not forget this; if we are to work out anything approaching to an adequate system of old age pensions it is imperative that the Government must insist on cutting down with rigour all superfluous expenditure. We cannot eat our cake and have it too. Let me mention one bright spot at least in this connec­tion; since we took office we have not been called upon to incur any outlay on the head of war expenditure. Long may that happy state of things continue. I hope and believe, too, that, as a result of the Conference at the Hague, fresh guarantees of peace may be secured.

The Land Programme of the Government

Then we have made considerable progress with our land programme, which we mean to press on with all the energy at our command, because we hold that no problem is more urgent than this of the land, and our belief is that, by offering a better chance of independence, social as well as political, to the rural population who cannot now get land in many parts to cultivate, and by reform­ing the incidence of local taxation, we shall go some way to accom­plishing the end we have set before us, I mean the development of the resources of this country of ours to the best advantage. The Small Holdings Bills for England and Scotland and the Valuation Bills for the two countries may not loom so large in the public eye as certain other measures, but they are of crucial importance to the health, contentment, and well-being of the people, and to the prosperity of our industries.

Reform of House of Commons Procedure

But, ladies and gentlemen, I am not going to detain you with a catalogue of what we have accomplished or have in anticipation, because the subject I specially wish to discuss is the instrument, the political instrument, with which we have to work. This may be the thing we have to do; let us see what it is we have to do it with. Mr. Gladstone once said upon this topic that a man shaving himself in the morning made a judicious use of his time and ener­gies by attending to the edge of his razor before undertaking that operation. Liberals, see to our razor. We have spent a good deal of time in a very difficult task, in endeavouring to get a keener edge on our House of Commons procedure, and I think that time was well spent, and that the additional committees which have been set up will increase the output and quality of our legislation. A step, which remains to be taken, will probably be the establishment of a b usiness committee to allocate the time to be given to various measures. The waste of time in the House of Commons is still appalling, and remember that waste of time means the throwing away of national opportunities. It means that the energy and keenness which we cannot do without evaporate and give place to lassitude. Any measures, therefore, we may take with a view to checking this mischief are bound to make the House of Commons a better deliberative Assembly and a more businesslike, because a more concentrated, Assembly.

The Lords and the Education Bill

Oh! But that is the House of Commons. There is another House. The House of Commons, ladies and gentlemen, with all its imperfections, would be well enough if we were not exposed to the operations of another Chamber, whose powers of obstruction are often directed to thwarting and neutralising the efforts of the House of Commons, and discrediting any Government with which that second Chamber is not in sympathy. Take the position - and it is a deplorable position - of the education question. You know how it stands. You know how our efforts to bring about a settlement were thwarted, and the principal labours of last Session were thrown to the wind by the action of the Lords, and you remember what was the situation in which this was done. The country had just expressed its mind by sending an overwhelming majority to the House of Commons to see that popular control and manage­ment of the schools of the nation was secured, and to sweep away the sectarian tests imposed upon the teachers. Yes, the country willed it so, but the Lords willed it otherwise, and today you have men who are the salt of the earth suffering imprisonment and the seizure of their goods rather than pay for the teaching of doctrines in which they disbelieve in the public elementary schools. Yes, and meanwhile the administrative machinery, which urgently calls for attention if our schools are to be made efficient and the children to be kept healthy, had to be left to creak and grind along as best it may because the peers had made up their minds in a different way from the country. And what was this principle on which the peers temporal and spiritual, at the instigation of a minority in the House of Commons, were pleased to act? Why, that the interests of national education were secondary and should be made sub­servient to the established Church of England. This was the prin­ciple on which they exercised their revising powers, and this was the principle on which they resisted and defied the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives. Well, that is how the instrument works, that is why we are in trouble about the education question and compelled to begin all over again next Session.

Don’t Play into the Hands of the Enemy

Now I am going to venture to give you a piece of advice. Do not forget at whose door the responsibility lies; do not be impatient because we decline to spend our time in sending up little Bills only to have them flung back in our faces. I know how bitterly our friends have been tried by this period of waiting, but I know them, I think, too well, and I have worked with them too long, to believe they will play into the hands of the enemy by any faltering or flagging now that we are about to join issue with the House of Lords.

A Silly Charge

Now, having disposed of that piece of advice, I want to say a word about the accusation, and a very silly one it is, that we are raising this question for party or tactical purposes, and in order to get rid of the pledges we gave to the country and to free ourselves from the burden of the legislation which it is our duty and privilege to promote. There could hardly be a more silly charge than that. You have only to look at the circumstances and to remember that in our very first Session two measures of capital im­portance, the Education Bill and the Bill for the abolition of the monstrous and intolerable electoral anomaly and privilege of plural voting, were rejected. You have only to think of that to see that the quarrel was not of our seeking, but was violently forced upon us. And, in the second place, the slightest study of the character and composition of the present Liberal and progressive party in the House of Commons - and for this part of my argument I hope I may be allowed to treat the Liberal and Labour party as one - would suffice to show that never was a party in more deadly earnest abo ut reform than the party which it is my pride to lead. The quarrel was forced upon us, and it is because we are in earnest about our legislation and intend to find a way of getting it through, and because we do not regard politics as a mere game played for the amusement of two parties in the State, that we propose to bring this matter to a serious and decisive test.

A Game to Discredit Liberal Governments and to Restore Protection

And remember another thing. These successive blows at the authority of the House of Commons, directed though they were at particular measures, are part of a general scheme for discrediting - not this Government, that were a small affair - but discrediting any Liberal Government, and impressing the country with the view that a Liberal ministry, be it ever so powerful, ever so united, is impotent to carry its measures. You observe the brilliant idea. They first make our work well-nigh impossible and then hold us up to the contempt of the country as bunglers and impostors. And what is the sequel to that? What are they hoping and praying for in their Primrose lodges and Tariff Reform camp meetings? It is this, that the House of Lords by these tactics will set Protection on its feet again and drive the electors in a fit of disgust back into the fold where for twenty long years they have been shepherded and fleeced.

Cleverness: a Game that Does not Pay

That is the game, and it may be exceedingly clever; but there is one thing I have learned in my Parliamentary experience - to the length of which my friend in the chair made such an unkindly allusion - I have learned this - it is not cleverness that pays in the long run. The people of this country are a straightforward people. They like honesty and straightforwardness of purpose. They may laugh at it and they may be amused by it, and they may in a sense admire it, but they do not like cleverness. You may be too clever by half.

The Existence of Liberalism at Stake

Sir, they are reckoning without their host. There is one thing they have overlooked. His Majesty’s Government have no inten­tion of playing the part referred to them in this nice little game. And when I hear those gusts of mirthless laughter rising from the Opposition benches whenever this question of the House of Lords is referred to, I feel sorry that the relics of a once great and respectable party, as the Conservative party was, are so en­gulfed in their petty tactics, so deluded by the flippant habit of mind which has become popular among them, as to be totally oblivious to the gravity of the issue which stands at their door. I am addressing you tonight under a deep sense of responsibility; for the very existence of Liberalism as a force in the State and as an instrument of progress in the times to come depends upon the outcome of the struggle upon which we are embarking. If there is to be no place for a self-respecting Liberalism in this country, if Liberalism with the country behind it cannot enforce its policy, then is it not better that we should go down in the assertion of our rights rather than linger on as a shadow of a Government, strong, perhaps, in numbers, strong, perhaps also it may be, in good inten­tions, but withal without authority or power?

The Constitutional Issue Involved

I ask you now to turn to the constitutional issue involved in this controversy. And I will tell you at once that, in my opinion, the Lords have abused their powers within the Constitution, and that in assigning to them their proper place, as it is our purpose to do - and a very good, useful, and honourable place it is - so far from attacking the Constitution or setting up a revolution, it is we who are defending, it is the Lords who are straining, the Constitu­tion. Remember that although we are forced into this struggle by the circumstances which surround and confront us, it is the climax of a series of attacks upon the rights and liberties of the Commons. Therefore, if the immediate causes of the deadlock and confusion were withdrawn, we should none the less be bound to go forward. What is this doctrine of the Constitution? That doctrine is not, as you might infer from the action of the peers, it is not that there are two Chambers exercising co-ordinate authority and equal powers. The peers themselves put forward no such claim. In terms they admit the predominance of the House of Commons, although their practice at times belies their profession. The last word, the ultimate supremacy, rests with the House of Commons. That is the accepted constitutional doctrine, and what we have to do is to see that the relations between the two Houses are so arranged as to define the limits within which the power which the Constitution has conferred upon the Lords may be properly exercised.

The Relations between the Houses since the Reform Act

Now the history of the relations between the two Houses since the Reform Act shows that the second Chamber has alternated be­tween two courses and policies, neither of which can be squared with the loyal and consistent discharge of their constitutional obligations. The one policy has been to efface itself before the decisions of the House of Commons, and there have been considerable periods dur­ing which that effacement has been almost unbroken by a suggestion of criticism or by any sign of corporate life and intelligence. The other policy has been to set up its own views and to push them to extreme lengths against the House of Commons; and, if you pursue your inquiries you will find that these violent oscillations invariably correspond with the political complexion of the majority in the House of Commons, and that the Lords are deferential and obse­quious when the Conservatives are in power and defiant and contemptuous when the Liberals are in power. Their record can be depicted in graphic form by a series of curves such as statisticians and mathematicians love, the depressions marking the time the Tories and Unionists are in office and the lofty, bounding, and swelling curves the time when the Liberals are in office.

How the Reform Act changed the Situation

Now what we call the House of Lords question is of compara­tively recent origin, dating from the time of the Reform Act. The Reform Act was the first step and the longest in the direction of democratic government. Until then the Members of the British Houses had much affinity with each other, affinity in the class from which they were drawn and in the sympathies and prejudices which swayed them. But besides that general affinity there was a special affinity which greatly affected the case. Up to that period both Houses were united by a common tie, because the elected Chamber was to a large extent in the pocket of the House of Lords. The great peers who owned pocket boroughs pulled the strings and the House of Commons responded; but from the moment the House of Lords was confronted by an independent and representative assembly the complexion of things was fundamentally altered, and you had a new confrontation of the great factors in our Constitu­tion. Yes, and from that moment, as we can see now, looking back over the years that have passed, the Lords were called upon to make their choice between resistance and acquiescence - a choice between, on the one hand, drifting along on the heavy current of class prejudice and privilege, striking for their order and their class as the opportunity arose, and resisting reforms as long as they could safely do so, until the crisis came, or, on the other hand rendering a loyal and consistent acqui­escence in the situation created by the Reform Act. Had they followed the latter course, and accepted the new House of Representatives in no capricious spirit as the governing factor in politics, had they exercised their powers in a judicial and impartial spirit, and as men alive to the requirements of the time, had they opened their doors, as Lord Palmerston wanted them to do, to life peers, we should not be entering upon this crisis today. They met the Reformed Parliament by defeating or mutilating measure after measure, and it was only the influence of the Duke of Wellington that induced them grudgingly and for a time to modify that attitude of defiance. And as the House of Commons became more and more representative of the nation, what happened? Exactly what I have been describing. You had periods of unreflecting and unintelligent subserviency, alternating with periods of obstructive and destructive activity, and with this I ask you to note another characteristic, the gradual conversion, not unnatural in these circumstances, of the peers into a solid party phalanx - an indication not only of atrophy, but of detachment from the world of affairs and the movements of the times.

Lord Shaftesbury on the House of Lords

I know nothing better worth quoting on this subject than the record which Lord Shaftesbury has left of the feelings which over­came him at the prospect of having to leave the House of Commons and take his place in the House of Lords. You know what a great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury was. Let me read this extract from Lord Ashley’s - he was Lord Ashley then, in 1842 - diary: ‘In the course of nature it seems probable that before long I shall be removed to another scene of action - to the House of Lords. If I regard this event as a man only, I must see in it utter annihila­tion of all my schemes for the benefit of the working classes and a total retirement from public life… The peers act as break­waters and think as such. This is their office and they never rise above it.’ I commend this in passing; I commend this to the ingenuous persons who take us to task and move amendments, as we have seen this Session, to the Address, condemning us for put­ting aside schemes for social reforms in order to deal with the House of Lords.

Recent History: The Lords Unteachable

Then I come down to more recent times, the twenty years of Unionist Government, during which, except for an interval of three years of activity, we hardly remembered the existence of the second Chamber, and certainly never took it into account as a decisive or influential factor in the course of events. So completely did they efface themselves during those twenty years, with the exception I have just mentioned, that I really believe we went into the last general election under an impression that the break­waters, as Lord Shaftesbury called them, were no longer uprearing themselves. And after the election, was it surprising that we fancied they had been finally submerged? Were we not justified in believing that the significance of the election would not be lost upon the Lords, and that if lost, no words of ours could force it upon their apprehension? In this we were wrong, completely, hopelessly, abjectly wrong. The Lords did hear of the election, and probably they regarded it as a great piece of impertinence. They arose from their slumber, and in the very first Session of the new Parliament they gave us to understand that their authority was greater than ours and that their views of what was just and right and good were not to be deflected by the mighty and unparalleled demonstration of the new year’s victory. I say that never in our history have they ventured so far and so audaciously. Threescore years and ten have been theirs for consideration, reflection, and amendment, and this is the use they have made of it; this is the extent to which they have proved themselves teachable!

‘The British people must be Master in its own House’

The Liberal party cannot take blame to themselves for any lack of forbearance, but really, when you see these legislators, who are where they are from no fault of their own - it may be, although I do not say it, for some merit of their own - so exercising their powers within six months of that unparalleled general election, we really must not be asked to go on kissing the rod and supplying them with material to make or mar, as in their wisdom they think fit. The time for compromisings, and temporisings, and verbal expostulations has gone by; and we must give the House of Lords to understand that, whilst we are perfectly ready to legislate with due deliberation and to give every weight to their representations, the British people must be master in its own house.

‘Keep the Fighting Line Strong and Unbroken’ 

I am addressing the organisers and leaders of the Liberal party; I know that on your support, on your confidence, on your enthusiasm, we may safely rely in fair weather and in foul until we have seen this business through. And what I say to you I know applies equally to those you represent. Keep the fighting line strong and unbroken, and if there are times when we at Westminster are not doing quite so well or moving quite as fast as you would wish, be patient with us while you do your best to keep us up to the mark. Above all things, remember, as you go into this struggle, that the greatest instrument of liberty, justice, and progress in this world is in your keeping and that it is yours to see that the efficacy of this great instrument of Parliamentary Government is not soiled and blunted any longer by the misuse to which it has been sub­jected. By the part you play, vindicate the memory of your fathers who, in dark days, shrank from no sacrifice and suffering that they might win for us that goodly heritage which we mean to hand on, enlarged and made secure, to the citizens of the future.

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